The definition of successive approximations is “a method of shaping operant behavior by reinforcing responses similar to the desired behavior”.
That is a lot of fancy words. If we apply this method to dog training, we are shaping and rewarding easily achievable steps. Basically we are taking any task and breaking it down into small rewardable pieces and then putting the pieces together.
For example, if you want to teach your dog to go to her dog crate, the completed behavior is obviously her walking to the crate and getting inside. But, the small achievable steps to get to that finished product might be:
- Your doglooks at the crate: This simple behavior signals that the game is on. Click and treat your dog when she acknowledges the crate, even if it’s just a glance.
- She takes a step towards it: Once you’ve clicked and treated your dog for looking at the crate a few times, pause and wait for her to do something more. It might be as simple as leaning towards the crate or as “big” as taking a single step closer to it.
- She continues taking steps towards the crate until she’s in front of it: Each step closer to the crate is treat-worthy click! Try to work quickly as your dog figures out the game.
- She puts her nose inside the crate: Some dogs have “crate baggage,” meaning they’re reluctant to get inside. That’s why you should click and treat your dog for the first hint that she might go in (and give her the reward while her nose is still inside the crate, if possible).
- She puts her nose and paw inside: It’s important to always wait for your dog to do a little more. So, after a few click-and-treats for putting her nose inside, withhold the click until she tries something else, like putting her paw in.
- She walks in halfway: You’re nearly there! Click and treat your dog while she’s still inside the crate.
- She walks completely into the crate: This is a moment to celebrate! Make sure to have a party when your dog gets all the way inside the crate, and click and treat her while she’s still inside. (Credit Victoria Schade, PetMD)
You can use this technique to teach your dogs’ tricks such as say your prayers, getting into a box, balancing on a fit paws or even putting their front paws on a wall.
You can also use this technique to help with nail trims, getting vaccinations or groomed and even muzzling your dog.
The video links below will help explain how the process works step by step.
You can use a clicker or a verbal marker such as yes or good anytime your dog successively approximates the right choices.
We encourage you to try this with your dog and report your success back to us. It’s a great mental training exercise for your dogs and a way to teach them a variety of commands, tricks and behaviors.